Transcript - The Drum

Andrew Leigh MP
Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister
Member for Fraser
11 June 2013

TOPICS                                 Accuracy of political punditry and prediction, Who will be PM at the next election

Julia Baird:                           Alright, well let’s move on now because it’s an election year as you might have figured, and Australian television is brimming with political pundits and their wisdom.  Flick from channel to channel and you’ll find plenty of journalists, ex-politicians and former ministerial staffers who are more than happy to voice their opinions. We even have a few on the Drum tonight and on a lot of nights. But just how accurate are these pundits when it comes to predicting political outcomes? A new study, which analysed comments made on Insiders and Meet the Press for a three month period before the 2007 and 2010 election hopes to answer that question. We’re joined now by the co-author of that report, economist and Labor MP, Andrew Leigh. Andrew Leigh, welcome to the Drum.

Andrew Leigh: G’day Julia

Julia Baird:                           Not wearing a blue tie, but a pink one.

Andrew Leigh: Indeed.

Julia Baird:                           Andrew, can you tell us about this study. Do we have reason to be proud? Because I understand that you’ve concluded that Americans have as much chance of being right, the American pundits, as if you toss a coin. Whereas Australian commentators have a sixty five per cent chance of being right.

Andrew Leigh: That’s right Julia, but the other thing Phillip Metaxas (my co-author) and I found, was that Australian pundits are remarkably reluctant to make forecasts that could turn out to be wrong. We watched over thirty hours of Insiders and Meet the Press and out of that we come up with twenty falsifiable predictions, twenty across thirty hours, so they’re making about a prediction every hour and a half. Yes, they do a smidgen better, but you don’t see a great hit rate among these pundits. It does look to us as though certainly many of the ones that are right are predictions that probably were odds on in any case. All credit to Fran Kelly, but suggesting that Tony Crook would support the Coalition for example was a prediction of hers we rated as correct but we also put in the fairly easy category.

Fran Kelly:                           I agree. I don’t think it was rocket science, but I’ll take it!

Julia Baird:                           Take that Fran, yeah, she was right. So, but Andrew, are you saying our commentators are more cautious than those in other countries? And why is that?

Andrew Leigh: They’re extraordinarily timid I think, Julia, and I think one of the things that’s going on is a sense of couching forecasts. So, saying well this will happen if this doesn’t happen. That’s sort of what I think of as faux forecasting; and attempt to look authoritative without willing to put yourself on the line. It’s a bit like saying, “Collingwood will beat the Swans on the weekend unless the Swans play better.” So…

Julia Baird:                           Is that a cultural thing? What is that about?

Fran Kelly:                           I think that is a good thing!

Andrew Leigh: Well I’m just not sure it’s terribly informative. I think that’s the concern that Phillip and I have and so…

Julia Baird:                           But how can it be, but aren’t you talking about guess work? You’re asking pundits to make more guesses and if in American that only means tossing a coin, perhaps it’s better to be more conservative sometimes?

Andrew Leigh: Well, here’s what we’d like to see…

Julia Baird:                           Yes

Andrew Leigh: We’d either like to see a ban on forecasting or if you’re going to engage in punditry, then engaging in punditry where we can judge your track record. As football forecasters do on a Friday, tell us what you really think – don’t couch your forecasts. I’m a little reluctant to give advice to you - but hey, you guys give a lot of advice to us, so here goes: I think at The Drum you ought to try and nail down your pundits to forecasts that could turn out to be wrong under some state of the world. I think that would give you a better ranking of pundits and it might then decide who to invite back and who could be passed over for the next program.

Julia Baird:                           Oh! Now that’s a tough one. A lot of people would be unemployed, particularly in the US if we use that standard. But let me just ask you quickly, the terms that you use are those employed by the philosopher Isaiah Berlin, ‘hedgehogs’ and the ‘foxes’. Can you explain to us the difference between the two and why it is that ‘hedgehogs’ are seen to make better TV?

Andrew Leigh: So it comes from an old philosophical essay which has the notion that the ‘hedgehog’ knows one big thing and the ‘fox’ knows many things. I think of myself as being a ‘fox’, someone who classically thinks about things in very small boxes, but a ‘hedgehog’ makes much better television. A ‘hedgehog’ is somebody who approaches politics or economics or foreign affairs with a single grand idea. Turns out their track record of prognostication is actually worse. But the problem for shows such as yours is that someone with a big compelling narrative about the world is often the most attractive kind of guest to have on even although they turn out to be wrong more often.

Fran Kelly:                           Yes but Andrew, but I mean are you advocating that we just get more and more into the entertainment business as that’s why we’re here? Or, when people are invited on for these sort of discussions are we there, you know, for analysis rather than being tipsters? I mean, I would think you could give analysis that informs issues without necessarily having to predict and if you want to take the Footy Show analysis well yeah, Collingwood will beat the Swans but the Swans will win if Adam Goodes turns on a blinder. Ok, that’s great. You look for Adam Goodes and then you see who’s going to win. I think that’s a sensible and honourable approach to it.

Andrew Leigh: I think the analysis is fine. It’s the pretend prognostication that troubles Phillip and I. The attempt at looking as though you’ve got a crystal ball but when we go back and have a look at your words we realise that in fact you haven’t really got any skin in the game. You haven’t really put down anything that could leave you embarrassed on Monday morning. Either do it well or don’t do it at all.

Julia Baird:                           Now, Peter Reith we’ve been hearing you chuckling down the line. I don’t know if you consider yourself a ‘hedgehog’ or a ‘fox’, would you like to weigh in?

Peter Reith:                        Well, to be honest with you I thought it must have been April Fools’ Day. I mean, fancy actually suggesting that there should be a ban on punditry which Andrew just… I mean, I thought he must have been laughing, but actually I find out that he’s serious! And then he says, oh, and then if you don’t do that then you know, you should have a regulator, basically, to check, you know, to see who got their punditry, you know, more right than others. I mean, seriously, I mean, what planet are you on, Andrew? I mean, I’m a pundit but, you know, I think, you know, Fran’s point is a bit closer to it. There’s nothing wrong with people saying, “oh I think this is going to happen”, I mean, you know, what’s interesting is what their thoughts are leading to that proposition, but seriously, if the voters and the readers and the listeners can’t work out that pundits have no better idea of the future than anybody else, well, bad luck for them!

[Julia Baird:                         Quick response Andrew?]

Andrew Leigh: Would that that were the case, Peter. It turns out that people place great faith in the prognostication of pundits and I think we can do something to improve the quality of punditry or maybe to replace it with deeper analysis that doesn’t pretend to have a crystal ball but discusses the issues of the day.

Julia Baird:                           Andrew I’m so sorry – we’re going to have to go in just one moment. But before we leave, can you make a political prediction for us then, who’s going to lead your party into the next election?

Andrew Leigh: That will be Prime Minister, Julia Gillard

Julia Baird:                           Anyone else? Let’s see how our panel of pundits goes!

Bruce Haigh:                       Yeah it will be Gillard. I wouldn’t call it ‘lead’ though

Julia Baird:                           Gillard, quickly, Fran?

Fran Kelly:                           I like to hedge my bets but ok, I think it will be Julia Gillard.

Julia Baird:                           And Peter Reith?

Peter Reith:                        Gillard, but when she loses it will be Shorten versus Rudd and Shorten will win because of the unions’ support.

Julia Baird:                           Ok, we’re going to have to leave it there. We’re going to come back and check on those pronouncements. Andrew Leigh, thanks for joining us on the Drum and thanks also to our panel, Bruce Haig, Fran Kelly and Peter Reith. You can check out the Drum online at Join us again the same time tomorrow night, we’ll see you then.

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Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | [email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.